Friday, September 27, 2013

The Spy: Undercover Operation—Espionage and Marital Strife

Sure, they get to kill people, but spies are still civil servants.  The hours are long and there is frequent travel, but they are still paid according to their government grade. Agent Kim Chul-soo’s wife does not realize he is out saving the country.  She only knows he is not around very much, with little to show for it.  However, she will find herself in the middle of his latest assignment when an enemy operative targets her in Lee Seung-jun’s The Spy: Undercover Operation (trailer here), which opens today in Queens, New York.

The latest round of six-party talks is fast approaching.  Once again, re-unification seems to be just around the corner, until a high-ranking North Korean official’s plane is blasted out of the sky by a stinger missile.  His daughter, Baek Sul-hee, decides to defect to the South to expose the international conspiracy responsible.  She also happens to be a nuclear scientist, making her a very valuable commodity.  Kim and his sidekick-like department head Jin will manage the operation, but the normally reliable operative will be uncharacteristically distracted by his fraying marriage.

Frankly, the North Koreans are the least of their worries.  The Chinese, American, and Japanese intelligence services are all circling around Baek.  However, a mysterious freelancer named Ryan represents the gravest threat.  Sort of the male model version of Javier Bardem’s Raul Silva in Skyfall, Ryan has been putting the moves on Kim’s unsuspecting wife AhnYeong-hui for nefarious purposes. This rather annoys Kim, for multiple reasons.

Essentially, The Spy incorporates elements of Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Athena: Goddess of War, adding a liberal dose of broad, henpecked humor.  Helmed by last minute stand-in Lee Seung-jun (the assistant director on Quick), it boasts several nicely executed action scenes, but the jealous husband gags are strictly sitcom stuff.

If the Korean film industry is serious about expanding their share of the American market, The Spy is a rather perverse choice to export, given its anti-American inclinations.  It is hard to imagine a film whose hero deliberately shoots CIA agents dead is likely to breakout at the American box office, especially since fans of the action and rom-com genres tend to be more heartland, whereas the audience for provocative art-house films like Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta will not be interested, regardless.  Perhaps American actor Daniel Henney (best known for the previous Wolverine film) was considered crossover friendly, but he is hardly a household name.

Henney makes a decent villain as Ryan, but prestige screen-thesps Sul Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri look distinctly uncomfortable with the mugging and pratfalls required of Kim and Ahn, respectively. Somehow though, Han Ye-ri’s Baek is a figure of intelligence, seriousness, and resourcefulness. Conversely, Ko Chang-seok (another Quick alumnus) is right at home with Jin’s rubber-faced reaction shots.

There is some impressive stunt work in The Spy, but it is hamstrung by its dubious humor and geopolitical analysis. Not likely to have a long run, diehard Henney fans (if they’re out there) should see it this weekend, but go in with low expectations when The Spy: Operation Undercover opens today (9/27) at the AMC Bay Terrace in Flushing.